A PRIVATE MURDER


By Richard Ciciarelli



Charles Blake III bounded into the living room and plopped onto a sofa next to his grandfather.

"Gramps, I have to write an essay for school on something interesting that happened to one of my relatives."

Charles Blake I smiled. "And you're coming to me because...?"

"Aw, comon, Gramps. You were a cop. You must have had some cases that would make for a good essay."

"Well," Blake closed his eyes and thought. "I did have one case that was described as an impossible murder. I prefer to call it a private murder, though."

"Private murder?"

"Yes. Today the newspapers are full of public murders: terrorist bombings or school shootings. A private murder is more personal. The killer tries to hide the fact that he committed murder. He doesn't brag about it."

Charles Blake the younger gripped a pencil and prepared to write.

"Tell me about it."

"Well," Charles the elder said, "it happened back in 1967 when I was a rookie on the force."

* * *

A call came into the station that Edward Comstock had been found dead in his den. Now, you probably don't recognize that name, but Comstock was an inventor. He was pretty famous in this town and very wealthy.

The chief assigned the case to me, so I headed out to Comstock's home outside of town along with the medical examiner and a few other policemen.

When we got there, we found three people waiting for us: Comstock's wife, Rachel; his son, Teddy; and his nephew, Ken.

Ken had been living with the Comstocks ever since his parents died several years earlier. He was practically Edward's second son.

Anyhow, these three led us to the room where Comstock had been found.

"What happened?" I asked.

"We're not sure," Rachel said. "I was in the kitchen washing the dinner dishes when I heard a noise that sounded like a gunshot. I came into the hall here and found Teddy and Ken."

"That's right," Teddy agreed. "I was in the living room watching television. I heard the sound and came out to see what it was. Ken poked his head out of his room and asked if I heard it, too. It sounded like it came from Dad's den. We were starting for it when Mom came in from the kitchen."

"The three of us knocked on the door and called out to Uncle Edward," Ken picked up the story, "but there was no answer. That's when we forced the door open and found him."

"You forced the door?"

"Yes," Rachel explained. "You see, every night after dinner Ed would go into his den, light a fire in the fireplace and sit in his recliner to think about new inventions. He always locked the door so he wouldn't be bothered."

"Why didn't you just unlock the door?"

"Because we don't have a key. We haven't had one for years. It got lost somehow and we just never bothered to have a new one made."

I took a quick look at the door.

"I assume the door is locked by pushing this button on the doorknob?"

The three family members nodded.

"I'd like you all to wait in your living room, please, while I talk to the medical examiner."

They turned and walked away, and I entered the room.

Edward Comstock sat in a recliner, his feet propped up, facing a fireplace with a fire that was now beginning to burn itself out.

"What have you got, Sam?"

"One bullet hole in the right temple. No powder burns, so he was shot from a distance. It's a good sized hole, so I'd have to guess a fairly large caliber gun was used. I can give you a better estimate when I remove it during the autopsy."

I was looking around the room while the medical examiner was talking.

"I don't see a gun, do you?"

"No, but then I wasn't looking for one."

I walked over to some windows that were in the wall behind Comstock's chair.

"Locked. In fact, it looks like these are painted shut."

"And that's important...why?"

"Somebody shot Edward Comstock in this room, Sam. Whoever it was didn't go out the door or he'd have been seen. And he didn't go out these windows, either. So where is he?"

* * *

I left the ME and went into the living room where the family of Edward Comstock was waiting. Rachel sat on a sofa, her hands in her lap. Ted stood behind his mother. He was massaging her shoulders gently. Ken paced the floor nervously. All three looked up when I entered.

"Who was the first person in the hallway after the gunshot?"

"I was," Ted said.

"How long did it take you to get there?"

Ted shrugged. "I'm not sure, Maybe ten seconds. Why?"

"From where your father was sitting it would have taken whoever shot him a while to get out the door. He should have been seen."

"But I didn't see anyone."

I frowned. "That door. If I were to push the little button in and step outside the room and close the door, would it lock behind me?"

"Yes," Rachel said.

"But still I'd be seen," I rubbed my chin. "And none of you saw anyone leave the room. At least not by the door. Did you hear anything that might be someone leaving some other way?"

They looked at each other, puzzled.

"Like how?" Ken asked.

"I don't know. Are there any secret panels or trap doors in that room?"

"This isn't some 1930s movie," Rachel said. "There are no secret panels or doors or passageways in this entire house."

"I had to ask, just to make sure. I'm going to the station now to file a report. I'll probably be back tomorrow."

"Aren't you going to take fingerprints or anything?" Ted asked.

"No. The other members of the team will do that. I'm done here for a while. I'll let myself out."

* * *

The next day I was at my desk in the station typing up a report on my trusty Corona. Those were the days before computers, you know.

I was about half done when the phone rang. It was the medical examiner.

"Charlie. I got some interesting news for you. I removed the bullet from Edward Comstock."

"And?"

"And I was right. It's a fairly large caliber. Looks like a forty-four. The last time I saw a bullet like this was when I was pulling them out of our boys in the war twenty-odd years ago."

"What are you saying?"

"This looks like a bullet from a German Luger. Don't know if that helps or not."

"It can't hurt, Sam."

I dropped what I was doing and drove out to the Comstock house. Ken let me in and brought me to the rest of the family who sat in the kitchen.

"Does anyone in this house own a Luger?" I asked.

Rachel shook her head. "No. At least not any more."

"What does that mean?"

"Edward used to own one. He brought it back as a souvenir from the war. He fought in Europe, you know."

"That's right," Ted said. "He set up a shooting range in the basement and used to fire off a few rounds every now and then. Even made his own bullets."

"What happened to the gun?"

"Two years ago our museum put on an exhibit to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the end of the war. Dad donated the gun to be put on display. It's been there ever since."

"I'd like to see this shooting range."

"It's not there now," Ted said. "I can show you where it was before Dad took it down."

I nodded and Ted led me to a door at the far side of the kitchen. I followed him down a set of wooden steps into the basement.

The basement was an unfinished one with cinderblock walls. Several overhead light fixtures provided plenty of light for me to see tables strewn with pieces of pipe, metal, plastic and wood. What looked like blueprints sat in various spots, held down by screwdrivers and pliers.

"This is where Dad made models of his inventions," Ted explained. "If the models worked, he built full scale versions."

"Where was the shooting range?"

"Over there." He pointed to a wall. "Dad had several layers of plywood against that wall. In front of them he put a couple of old mattresses. He'd hang a bulls eye on the mattresses and shoot at it. Those are the mattresses there, on the floor in the corner. Dad kept them and used them for experiments with some of his models."

"But he tore the range down when he donated his gun to the museum?"

"Yes. The very next day, in fact. There hasn't been a gun of any kind in this house since then — a little over two years now."

"How about the equipment he used to make bullets?"

"Sold it to a gun collector in the next county. That stuff hasn't been here in a long time, either."

"Well, I guess I've seen about all I need to see. We might as well go back upstairs."

As we passed Comstock's worktable, I paused and looked at a blueprint.

"What's this? It looks like a diagram of a balloon."

"It is, sort of," Ted said. "Dad got this idea that he said could save thousands of lives. It's a kind of balloon hidden in the dashboard of a car. If there's an accident, the balloon inflates and stops people in the car from going through the windshield.

"He was testing some models; that's what all those CO2 cartridges are for. Dad said if he could perfect this invention, it would be worth tens of millions of dollars."

"Sounds interesting."

"Yes. Problem is, the balloons kept over inflating and popping. He never quite figured out a way to get just the right amount of air in them."

"How about you? Can you finish his invention?"

"Me? I'm a salesman, not an inventor. I'm the guy who took Dad's inventions out and sold them to the companies who could use them."

"Could your cousin, Ken, do it?"

"Ken knows a little more about mechanics than I do, but not enough to finish one of Dad's inventions. I'm afraid the car balloon idea is doomed."

"Until some other inventor perfects it," I said. "Let's go."

* * *

My next stop was the city museum. There I met with William Lunt, the curator.

"Yes, Mr. Comstock donated his World War Two gun to us a couple of years ago," Lunt said in answer to my question. "It's been on display here ever since."

"It never left the museum?"

"Never. Why is this important?"

"I'm not sure, to tell you the truth. May I see the gun?"

Lunt led me to a room filled with memorabilia from the two world wars.

"Here it is." He pointed to a nasty looking weapon in a glass showcase. "That case has been locked since the gun was put in it, and I have the only key."

"I see a clip with bullets next to it. Do they go with the gun?"

"Yes. Mr. Comstock donated those as well."

"Mr. Lunt, I know this is unusual, but I'd like to borrow that gun and those bullets. I'll return them in a day or so."

"Why?"

"Just a crazy idea."

Three hours later I was at my desk in the station again when my phone rang.

"Charlie? It's Fred down here in ballistics. I test fired that Luger you brought in. You were right. A comparison of the bullet I fired and the one Sam took out of Comstock's head showed that both were fired by that gun."

So, Edward Comstock was shot with a gun that had been sitting in a museum showcase for two years.

* * *

The captain looked at me like I was crazy.

"You're telling me a German World War Two Luger that's been locked in a case for two years shot Edward Comstock?"

"That's what the ballistics evidence says."

"Impossible. And even if it could be done, who'd want to kill the guy? Have you even thought about motive yet?"

"No, sir. I've been too busy trying to figure out the how. I haven't had time to consider who."

"Well, start considering. Check with Comstock's lawyer. That may give you something."

And that's how I found myself in the office of McChensey, Whipple and Noyse, Attorneys at Law, waiting for Harry Whipple to see me.

Whipple turned out to be a weasly looking man, small and thin with a Clark Gable mustache. If you don't know who Clark Gable is, I'll tell you later.

"Well," Whipple hedged, "lawyer client privilege being what it is, I really shouldn't tell you anything."

"Mr. Whipple, your client is dead. Murdered under what can be called mysterious circumstances at the very least. Any information you can give me could help find his killer."

Whipple pursed his lips and scratched his slicked-down hair. After a sigh he began.

"Mr. Comstock attended an inventors convention in Las Vegas a few months ago. There he met a young woman he described as both beautiful and intelligent. A fellow inventor.

"He fell in love with her, and when he came home he asked me to draw up divorce papers and a new will. He planned to marry this young woman and leave everything to her, cutting his current family off completely.

"I never started work on the will. I was still getting the divorce papers in order when he died."

"So that means his original will is still in effect? What are its terms?"

"His wife gets half of everything he owns: property, insurance, royalties from his inventions. His son and nephew, Ken, split the other half equally."

"And I suppose that comes to a lot of money."

"Millions."

If anyone in the house found out about Comstock's plan, that would provide motive, all right, but it still didn't tell me how anyone managed to kill him.

That night I took the Comstock file home with me. I read and re-read that thing a half dozen times. It had descriptions of the house, the murder scene, the basement workshop and all my conversations with the family, William Lunt, and even Harry Whipple.

It was well past midnight when I finally got an idea.

First thing the next morning I was in the captain's office.

"I might be able to crack the Comstock case if you'll send the fingerprint team to their house one more time."

"Why? They already did a thorough job on Comstock's den. No fingerprints anywhere — including that doorknob lock — except the dead man's."

"I don't want them to check the den. I want them to check somewhere else."

* * *

The captain sat back in his chair and puffed on a cigar. In those days people were still allowed to smoke indoors.

"That was a great job, Blake. I don't know how you figured it out."

"I got to thinking about the first problem I had with this case, Captain. How did Comstock's killer shoot him and get out of that den unseen?

"The only answer was he must have been shot earlier. Then the killer locked the door and left and made that gunshot noise later to attract everyone's attention."

"But why didn't anyone hear the earlier gunshot?"

"That's why I had the fingerprint team dust everything in the basement workshop. When I re-read the file, I remembered all the CO2 cartridges that Comstock was using for his car balloon invention.

"What if the killer made a gun that shot bullets with compressed air from one of those cartridges? There would be almost no noise. And there was plenty of material, like pieces of pipe, in the basement to make a gun from. And it would also explain why there were no powder burns on Comstock's temple."

"But the bullet was fired from Comstock's old Luger," the captain said.

"Yes, but when? I thought maybe the killer found an old bullet that was in one of the mattresses Comstock used in his target practice years ago. That would be perfect for confusing us if we ever did a ballistics check with Comstock's Luger. Which we did.

"And it also made it seem impossible for Comstock to have committed suicide. Any insurance policies he had would have been invalid then.

"The killer figured with a little luck we'd never figure out how Comstock was actually killed, so no one would be arrested and everyone would live happily — and richly — ever after."

"But you did figure it out."

"I got lucky. The fingerprint team found only one set of prints on the tools and materials in the basement that weren't Edward Comstock's. They belonged to the only person with enough knowledge of mechanics to make a CO2 gun: nephew Ken."

* * *

Charles Baker III shook the cramps from his writing hand.

"But the gunshot everyone heard?"

"One of the balloons from Comstock's invention being over inflated and bursting. Since the noise was from Ken's room, it was loud but still muffled enough to be mistaken for a gunshot."

"That was a great story, Gramps. My teacher is going to love it. Tell me another one."

"Maybe some other time, Charlie. Maybe some other time."


Richard Ciciarelli is a member of Mystery Writers of America and since 1982 has seen over 70 short stories published in some of the country's top magazines and on-line mystery sites.


Copyright 2011 Richard Ciciarelli. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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